Monday, February 25, 2013

middle age

I never got my PhD in physics.  I stopped at a M.S.  I do not mean this to complain.  It was my choice to leave grad school at the age of 39 and enter the job market.  I left my studies, knowing that academia, at least in physics, views an M.S. as an incomplete PhD.  But despite that,  I have had a fulfilling career ever since, and I have no regrets.  Until…

…until I found out that one of the 1st year undergraduates that was enrolled in my university physics course 11 years ago, is soon to get his PhD in mathematical physics.   I remember him.  He was an unbelievably sharp kid.  I knew he would go far.

But my former student has now attained a level that I will, in all likelihood never attain.  He has reached a goal that I will never reach. 

I had a dream last night.  I rarely remember dreams anymore, but I remember this one.  I dreamt that I was back in my old University at a department pizza social.  All the young freshmen from my 11 years old class were there, and none had aged a single day.  They all asked if I was there as the new professor.  No, I replied, I was just there for pizza, and to cheer them on for their dissertation defenses.

I think it is no coincidence that today is my birthday.  I am 49 years old today.  Well into middle age.  I am not consciously thinking about aging, but it somehow snuck into my dreams last night.  

I realize how trite, immature and selfish this sounds.  I realize that I have a wonderful and fulfilling life.  I realize that I am rich beyond my wildest imagination.  I have no right to think such pitiful thoughts.  But there they are - I am a mere human weakling after all.  I think that this is a mood that will only last through today.  After all, I swore to myself a long time ago that I would never let myself sink into a mid-life crisis.

Lift a glass.  Here’s looking forward to tomorrow!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Conversions and De-Conversions - The final straw

When I review the nearly thirty chapters that I have written in this Conversions and De-Conversions series, I discover that my real de-conversion from Christianity began in 1993 when I left Calvary Chapel.  I remained a Christian for about 13 years after I made the decision to leave that church, but the single event of leaving Calvary Chapel was the first trigger that led to my eventual exit from Christianity.  It had been a slow accretion of assimilation into the worldly environment, a progressive education in the scientific method and critical analysis, and acquaintance and accommodation of people and cultures that were vastly different from my own.  It was a slow progression away from Christianity.  My ‘spiritual journey’, if I may call if that, may have stopped at any point since that time.  I might have received my education in Physics, and from there lived a perfectly happy life, ambivalently believing in God.  I might have gotten a career in private industry, with a vague belief in some kind of Heavenly reward for a life well lived, while privately chuckling at my naive days as a Fundamentalist.  I might have been content marrying a Catholic girl from the Philippines, nominally converting to her religion, and lived as a Sunday Morning Catholic.  I could have remained, as so many do, believing that God does not care what religion I follow, as long as I have Faith in something, and that is ultimately all that really matters.  This story could have ended at any one of those points.  In fact, I do believe that many, if not most, of the people who leave a Fundamentalist brand of Christianity usually do end at one of those points.  I do think that there are many refugees of Fundamentalist Christianity, who are now content as nominally Christian believers.  They managed to escape from their cultish environment of religious fanaticism, only to live with the vaguest idea that God does not care what they believe, as long as they gain their moral behavior from a belief in some nebulous something.

What turned it around for me?  Why did I not rest content with vague spiritual beliefs?  I can think of two primary reasons:

I have always taken my reliance on faith and belief very seriously.  If I am to believe in something, I want to know what it is.  I at least want to have a pretense of thinking I know what it is.  I could never understand how people could simply change their core religious beliefs and convictions, simply as a matter of personal taste or convention.  I did not understand that as a Fundamentalist Christian, and I do not understand it now as a de-converted Christian apostate.

I loved my wife, and I desperately wanted to be a good husband.  I had been led to believe by my religious indoctrination that religious beliefs were the only acceptable standard of morality.  The only way to be good was through belief in God.  Jesus set the standard in His many discourses, notably the Sermon on the Mount.  If I wanted the strength of the Holy Spirit, which was necessary to achieve a more Christ-like life, I had to return to my Christian roots.  I had no desire to ever become an ignorant Fundamentalist as I was in Calvary Chapel, but by starting a home Bible Study group and devoting more of my time to prayer, I was inevitably being drawn back into that brittle Fundamentalist mindset.  At the same time, I was being influenced by my wife’s Catholic beliefs.  I was being pulled in three separate directions, the Scientific method and secularism, Fundamentalism and Catholicism.  Nominal believers may be able to rest content in vague religious beliefs.  I could not rest content.  Something had to give.

I mentioned the initial trigger that occurred in 1993.  There was another trigger.  There was a single incident that pushed me from my comfortable but tense ledge of ambivalent Christian belief, into full apostasy.  In fact, that single trigger, that single incident, was actually something that I said.  The trigger that led me out of Christianity was a single sentence that I barked at Rosemary in anger and confusion.  It began with a conversation with Rosemary, my wife of a single year.

We were lying in bed.  She could not sleep.  She was forced awake by the riveting suspense of a popular best-seller.  I have never been one to keep up on the latest pop culture phenomena, so while I had seen plenty of people reading the novel The Da Vinci Code, I had no idea what it was about.  Just a popular thriller, I had thought.  Rosemary was up in bed, unable to break her attention from the gripping story, and its mind-bending revelations.

She sat up, eager to talk with me.  “This book is so interesting!  It is a thriller about a professor who is investigating the Bible and the family of Jesus.”

“Jesus?”  She had my attention.  So this was what the popular best-seller was about.  "It is a story, but it is one of those stories that is based on real facts.  So this professor of symbology is talking with his older friend, another professor, about the Bible. “

“Symbology?  What is that?”

“I guess he studies symbols.  Anyway, listen to what this book says about the Bible.”  Rosemary picked up her novel and read a fictional conversation between two professors:

"…More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among them." 
"Who chose which gospels to include?" 
"Aha! The fundamental irony of Christianity!  The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great." 
"I thought Constantine was a Christian…" 
"…Hardly.  He was a lifelong pagan who was baptized on his deathbed, too weak to protest.  In Constantine's day, Rome's official religion was sun worship - the cult of Sol Invictus, or the Invincible Sun - and Constantine was its head priest.  Unfortunately for him, a growing religious turmoil was gripping Rome.  Three centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Christ's followers had multiplied exponentially.  Christians and pagans began warring, and the conflict grew to such proportions that it threatened to rend Rome in two.  Constantine decided something had to be done.  In 325 A.D., he decided to unify Rome under a single religion.  Christianity…" 
"…Constantine was a very good businessman.  He could see that Christianity was on the rise, and he simply backed the winning horse.  Historians still marvel at the brilliance with which Constantine converted the sun-worshipping pagans to Christianity.  By fusing pagan symbols, dates, and rituals into the growing Christian tradition, he created a kind of hybrid religion that was acceptable to both parties…" 
"…The vestiges of pagan religion in Christian symbology are undeniable.  Egyptian sun disks became the halos of Catholic saints.  Pictograms of Isis nursing her miraculously conceived son Horus became the blueprint for our modern images of the Virgin Mary nursing Baby Jesus.  And virtually all the elements of the Catholic ritual - the miter, the altar, the doxology, and communion, the act of 'God-eating' - were taken directly from earlier pagan mystery religions." 
"…Don't get a symbologist started on Christian icons.  Nothing in Christianity is original.  The pre-Christian God Mithras - called the Son of God and the Light of the World - was born on December 25, died, was buried in a rock tomb, and then resurrected in three days.  By the way, December 25 is also the birthday of Osiris, Adonis, and Dionysus.  The newborn Krishna was presented with gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Even Christianity's weekly holy day was stolen from the pagans…" 
"…During this fusion of religions, Constantine needed to strengthen the new Christian tradition, and held a famous ecumenical gathering known as the Council of Nicaea … At this gathering, many aspects of Christianity were debated and voted upon - the date of Easter, the role of the bishops, the administration of sacraments, and, of course, the divinity of Jesus." 
"Until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet ... a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless.  A mortal" 
"…Jesus' establishment as 'the Son of God' was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea." 
"Hold on.  You're saying Jesus' divinity was the result of a vote?" 
"A relatively close vote at that … Nonetheless, establishing Christ's divinity was critical to the further unification of the Roman Empire and to the new Vatican power base.  By officially endorsing Jesus as the Son of God, Constantine turned Jesus into a deity who existed beyond the scope of the human world, an entity whose power was unchallengeable…" 
"…Because Constantine upgraded Jesus' status almost four centuries after Jesus' death, thousands of documents already existed chronicling His life as a mortal man.  To rewrite the history books, Constantine knew he would need a bold stroke.  Form this sprang the most profound moment in Christian history.  Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike. The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned."
     -P231 – 234

“Well, what do you think?”

“I don’t know.  It is fiction isn’t it?  Just a story?”

“Yes this is a story, but it says at the beginning of the book that the facts about the Bible and history are all true.”

I did not know what to make of all this new information.  It was obviously blasphemous nonsense.  But if this blockbuster novel was based on real facts about the origins of the Bible, as if claimed, then I had no answer for it.  The trouble was, I was 41 years old.  I had been a Christian with greater or less intensity, for almost my entire life.  I was taught to revere to the Bible.  The word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.  It was the foundational cornerstone of my Faith, and the only sure means of God’s revelation and communication to me.  And despite my shock at the blasphemy of that silly novel, the truth was, I had no idea where the Bible came from.  Sure, the apostles wrote the Gospels.  Paul wrote his epistles.  A few other apostles and close associates of Jesus wrote some other epistles.  But I had never even entertained the idea of how the various writings were assembled and collated into a unified Canon.  As I mentioned in a previous chapter to this series, I had never heard a single sermon or lesson that described exactly how the Biblical Canon was decided on and assembled.  I have repeatedly emphasized how Calvary Chapel viewed ignorance as a virtue, and if Pastor Skip knew this information, he never shared it with his congregation.  The only information that I had on this shocking information was a few short bullet points in my Thomson Chain Reference Study Bible, about how certain apocryphal books were left out of the Canon.  But I had never in my life heard of such shocking things such as some eighty extra gospels that were intentionally suppressed by a Roman emperor.  I could not believe that the divinity of Jesus was voted on in a political maneuver to unify the Roman Empire.  Where did our Christian Canon come from?  Who wrote our Christian Creeds?  I had no idea.  But it sure did not happen the way Dan Brown’s novel was presenting it.  That was certainly a lie. 

I would have brushed this off as just another pop culture attack on my Christian Faith except for one thing.  Rosemary, along with the rest of the book reading public, was finding this book irresistible.  I was fearful that the ideas of who Jesus was in that book would deceive her into a heretical version of Christ’s Divinity.  I privately expressed my concern to some of my friends in our home Bible Study group.  “It would not be so bad if it was just silly fiction,” I said.  “But Dan Brown is presenting the background history as fact!”

“Yes, yes.  It is a tragedy.  A lie from the pit of Hell,” my friend agreed with me.  “The World hates the truth of God’s Word, and they will always attack Jesus.”

In all the years that I attended Calvary Chapel, they may have never given a single sermon about origins of Christianity, but in anticipation of the upcoming Da Vinci Code movie starring Tom Hanks, refutations of The Da Vinci Code along with mini-lessons in early Christian history were suddenly coming out of the woodwork.  If I was shocked by what Rosemary read in the book, I am certain that there were plenty of other Christians who were just as shocked as I was.  We were isolated from any investigation of Church history by a tradition of simply accepting unquestioned dogma.  For all our church pastors were concerned, I could have believed that the Bible simply and miraculously appeared out of thin air 2000 years ago.  The laity of the Evangelical Church was uncorrupted and innocent from the taint of knowledge.  But The Da Vinci Code tantalized Christians with knowledge of a hidden past, suppressed Gospels and secret councils.  Pastors suddenly had to act fast.  For a couple of months adjacent to the release of The Da Vinci Code movie in 2006, it seemed every church marquee in my neighborhood boasted an upcoming sermon that would debunk Dan Brown and reveal the real history of Biblical origins.

Rosemary has always loved a good thriller.  She loved reading The Da Vinci Code and could not wait to watch her favorite actor Tom Hanks play the lead in the upcoming movie.  I was seriously concerned.  I had to show her the error in her thinking.  I had to demonstrate that reading such blasphemous trash would lead to errors in her Christian beliefs.

There was a Baptist Church near our house that I passed every day, but we had never as yet attended.  During this crucial time, their marquee was one of the throng that promised to debunk The Da Vinci Code during their next Sunday morning service.  In one of the most despicable and conniving tricks I pulled on Rosemary during our marriage together, I decided to trick her into attending that Sunday morning service, in a tiny, unknown Baptist Church near our house, and get her educated. 

“Rosemary, there is another Baptist Church I have been wanting to attend.  It is very close to our house, and it is also very small.  Let’s go there next Sunday and see what it is like.”  I never mentioned that I knew very well what the sermon would be dedicated to.  Nope.  I just randomly happened to want to go there.

We sat in the pews amongst the tiny congregation.  The elderly pastor was overjoyed to see a younger married couple visiting his church, and he warmly welcomed us.  I actually enjoyed singing from old hymnals the likes of which I had not seen since I was young.  Then the sermon began.  It was a terrible sermon, but its intent was to be a lecture and as such it was actually quite well done.  It contained information about Christian origins that I had never heard before.  Rosemary was used to homilies during her morning Mass, not history lectures.  But the Evangelical Church suddenly found these lectures necessary to face the emergency crisis that The Da Vinci Code was challenging the Church with and deceiving believers.  The pastor had an overhead projector to place his transparent slides on, and Rosemary got pummeled with names, dates and other details about the origin of her Faith.  She did not know what hit her.  She was not used to listening to lectures on Sunday morning and vowed to attend Mass afterwards to make up for lost time.  The Pastor, to my satisfaction, completely destroyed the specific claims made by Dan Brown in his blasphemous novel.  Rosemary might have hated the Sunday morning lecture that debunked her stupid novel, but at least she now knew the truth.  It was tough medicine that she needed to swallow. 

We never again attended that tiny Baptist Church.  As far as I was concerned, it had done its job.  I was too cowardly to tell Rosemary the truth of why I wanted to go there.  But I thought that I lied to her for her own good.  Rosemary challenged my Christian Faith with The Da Vinci Code, and rather than investigate those claims and learn something from the experience, I let religious instinct drive my reactions.  My Faith was being attacked, so despite my growing liberality, despite my years of education and lessons in critical thought, I circled the wagons and retreated to the safety of my long lost Fundamentalism.  I had once hated the Fundamentalism that I escaped from, but it was something that I at least understood.  I had no idea how to evaluate the challenges posed by The Da Vinci Code, but I knew I always had a home in the familiar territory of Fundamentalism.  I was still too easily offended when my beliefs were scrutinized.

Finally, the moment came that I teased at the beginning of this chapter.  The trigger that finally led me out of Christianity was a single sentence that I barked at Rosemary in anger and confusion.  The movie premiered.  Rosemary was excited to see it.  Despite all my warnings to her, despite taking her to a Sunday morning lecture about the lies in that story, she still wanted to see the movie.  What was I doing wrong?  Why wouldn’t she listen to me?

“Can we go see The Da Vinci Code today?”


She knew what I thought of the book.  “But I want to see the movie.  Can’t we go?”  Yes, she asked for permission at that time.  On certain occasions, Filipino custom was still a habit with her.

“No Rosemary, we can not see that movie,” I said as forcefully as I dared.  Then the sentence that I will never forget.  A sentence that changed my life:

“Dan Brown will face God some day, and he will have to answer to Him what he has written.”

Rosemary’s eyes watered.  She was probably wondering what in the world was happening to her husband.  She replied very quietly, in an almost pleading tone, “It is just a story.”

End of argument.

I could not believe what I had just told my wife.  I was dishonest to her, and deceitful.  I had tried to trick her into making her think and believe exactly as I did.  I knew that my beliefs were the correct beliefs, and there was no longer any room for compromise.  There were all sorts of movies and books that I was not allowed to view when I was younger, and The Da Vinci Code would simply just have to be part of that long list.  But then I had to step back and reflect on what I had just told Rosemary.  I was falling right back into the Fundamentalism that I had so vehemently repudiated.  I had damned Dan Brown for writing a novel that I deemed blasphemous.  I had bullied my wife into not viewing things that I did not think were good for her.  My wife.  A woman who was a grown adult and who was capable of making her own decisions.  A woman who I had sworn to be honest and faithful to.  I knew at that moment that there was something drastically wrong.  I could not continue to have a marriage like this.  I could not be the Spiritual Leader of the household if it meant ordering Rosemary to honor my own personal banned items list, attempting to mould her spiritual thoughts and beliefs by subterfuge and trick and lie to her for the sake of believing in God as I saw fit. 

I was turning into the Fundamentalist asshole that I had hated so much when I was younger.  I thought Pastor Skip Heitzig was a disgusting liar for filtering and suppressing knowledge to make me believe as he saw fit, but I caught myself doing the exact same thing with Rosemary.

The words that I said to Rosemary repeated in my head.  Dan Brown will face God some day, and he will have to answer to Him what he has written.  As if I was God All-mighty, and could pass judgment with the same Divine authority.  But in those words, I also caught myself retreating to the Fundamentalism that I had repudiated.  I thought I had escaped the poisonous belief in Divine judgement and damnation.  I thought I had matured with more enlightened, Post-Fundamentalist beliefs.  But my new enlightened beliefs were just as unjustified as my more dogmatic beliefs, and when threatened with even the slightest of challenges, I became just as dogmatic, rigid and intolerant as I had ever been.  I knew that Dan Brown was a deceptive heathen, and I had the certainty that he would have to face God with his blasphemy.  But then I realized what an arrogant prick I really was.  I was so certain about what God thought of Dan Brown, that I was willing to railroad my own wife into believing exactly as I did.  I was disgusted with myself.  I was such a fool.

After several rounds of embarrassment and apologies, I agreed to watch the movie with Rosemary.  When the house lights went up and the end credits scrolled, I realized that she was right about one thing – it really was just a silly story.  But our marriage would not survive if I was to continue acting in this way.  My Faith could not survive either.  I did not know whether to be more liberal or conservative in my religious beliefs, and they seemed to change based on how I reacted to others, not to any deep conviction of religious Faith.  I no longer knew what to do, and my home Bible Studies and Rick Warren’s 40 Days of Purpose videos were no longer meeting my need.  I decided that if The Da Vinci Code, silly story that it was, was still able to force Evangelical churches to dispense otherwise suppressed history about its own historical foundations, then there had to be much more out there that I needed to learn.  Was my Faith correct?  Was Christianity really something worth believing in?  I had to get to the bottom of it.  I had to do it for the same reason I left Calvary Chapel 13 years before.  I had to do it for my own sanity.

Graduate school had taught me how to research topics, but astrophysics was so different from religious topics.  I had no idea where to start, but I had to start somewhere.  So I visited the La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church library and started browsing the books.

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